LINGUIST List 2.837

Wed 04 Dec 1991

Disc: Infinite Languages

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Bruce E. Nevin", infinitude of what?

Message 1: infinitude of what?

Date: Tue, 26 Nov 91 13:26:13 EST
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <>
Subject: infinitude of what?
Alexis Manaster Ramer wondered
> . . . if it would help people who are puzzled by the issue of
>the size of natural language (like Bruce Nevin, in his latest posting)
>if we considered analogies to other areas of human knowledge and
Just to set the record straight, I hadn't expressed puzzlement.
Language is not well defined. The arguments for infinitude refer to an
idealization that is well defined.
The boundaries between language and nonlanguage are unclear. Is the
grammar of a language part of that language? Is the speaker's internal
knowledge of a language part of that language? Are the memory traces
and neural mechanisms by which speakers control their perception and
understanding of a language part of that language? Presumably the
muscles, cartileges, and other structures of the vocal tract and ear are
not part of language though they are requisite for its control. We must
answer "yes" to at least the first two of these questions or else we
cannot embrace the idealization that is normal fare in our field--the
referent in my "assume a spherical language" post.
Of course, one can affirm that the grammar and the speaker's knowledge
of it are part of the language without necessarily reducing issues of
heterogeneity in language to second-class status as matters of mere
performance. For it is in looking along the axis of language variety
and language change (just one axis here: the temporal and social
dimensions are mutually inextricable) that we see other obvious ways
that language is not well defined.
Not even in terms of membership in the "set of sentences" is language
well defined. A third axis along which language (construed as a set of
utterances) is ill-defined is language users' graded judgements of
acceptability. At least some of these graded differences in
acceptability of word combinations turn out to have a simpler form when
you partition a language into sublanguages. In at least some restricted
subject-matter domains, especially those of science or technical fields
of other sorts, we get something like binary selection restrictions.
The graded character of selection in less disciplined usage might be
understandable in terms of analogic borrowing from one such domain into
A fourth axis, or perhaps it is only another way of looking at the
third, and certainly it intersects the second, arises through analogic
extension of new combinations on the basis of established ones. This is
the growing edge of language. It is also the dying edge, as seen in
language obsolescence (Fishman's "language shift") in communities and
language loss in individuals. It is not at all clear when in these
processes a language ceases to be. The converse of this is the
retention of relics, dismoored and adrift in the currents and eddies of
language change. These are typical not only of obsolescence and loss
but also of any normal living language situation. Borrowings from
technical sublanguages, perhaps once vivid metaphors, are retained as
frozen expressions whose literal meaning is lost. A couple of nautical
examples may illustrate: "two sheets to the wind" for staggering
drunkenness, where sheets are ropes attached to the clew of a sail for
trimming it, which if free "in the wind" leave the sails to luff; or
someone "taking a bath" in the stock market, which I surmise is from
the wealthy man's experience of capsizing his yacht. This axis, then,
is that of metaphors, living and dead.
I don't think I have exhausted the possibilities. But perhaps I don't
have to. It is only the idealized "spherical" aspect of language that
is arithmetic-like and therefore infinite. And of course one could
take a perspective on language that sees it in all its heterogeneity
and variety over time and space and social space as a single thing,
Language. Perhaps these two idealizations are not so very different.
	Bruce Nevin
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue